Reform over Revolution

When Democracy was first introduced in Athens in the 5th century BC, the population was small enough to allow every eligible citizen to have a direct say on the laws being proposed (what was later called Direct Democracy), albeit for men only. But, as the population grew, this became unsustainable and hence a new approach was adopted; Representative Democracy.

However Representative Democracy is not without its problems. In this form you no longer vote for laws, you vote for someone else to make decisions for you. The upside is that decisions are made more swiftly as getting a smaller group of people to agree is easier. The downside is that those decisions may not truly reflect the will of the people. That downside is proving to be a very major problem with the levels of trust in democratic governments across the world at all-time lows.

One of the reasons behind this is because the Representative system has fundamental flaws in its design in that it doesn’t cater to our human nature. Representative Democracy incentivises corruption by consolidating votes, or power, to a smaller group of elites which in turn incentivises secrecy. By design, it’s combative.

When you vote you know very little about the person you’re voting for to represent you, nor where their true agenda lies, not to mention party politics, where even if the representative does have your interests at heart the party’s agenda usually supersedes them. Throughout their term, they will vote on hundreds of different changes across a very broad range of topics. Unless you follow the official government results very closely and understand the implications, you won’t know what you have really voted for. Come the next election, do you review all the decisions your representative made in order to judge whether they should remain in that critical position as “your voice”?

It comes down to who has the best marketing campaign with the biggest budgets who win elections most often, not those that represent you most fairly. And if the person you voted for didn’t win, your voice is immediately muffled. The majority effectively have no voice in Representative Democracy, only the passionate, which means it’s geared towards polarisation. Polarisation can then bring huge sudden changes in policy and unnecessary expenses which in turn can affect the stability of our economy. Especially when policies are reversed by a new government.

When people discuss Democracy, two of the main “pillars” are Transparency and Accountability. Transparency in knowing where and how your vote is being used (plus financial transparency etc) and Accountability where you can choose to elect someone else if that representative is not performing adequately. However, this is well after the fact and relies on the majority to participate. Indiscretions at the beginning of a term are often forgotten come re-election. Without Transparency, you simply can’t have Accountability. This has led to calls for Open Government and Open Data.

But there are more “pillars” to a well-functioning democracy that are often overlooked. These are Knowledge (or Education) and Participation. Knowledge is the ability to understand the implications of those decisions, the ability to see the impact those decisions are having on you as the people. Again, without this knowledge, Accountability can’t happen. And when Accountability doesn’t exist, when we try and try and try and continue to be ignored, some people resort to violence while others will stop fighting entirely — the Participation problem. This is often the driver behind Revolutions. When tell the governing elite that if you don’t reform, we’ll revolt.

And with revolt comes instability, suffering and loss, for both the people and the elites. So the question is how do we reform before the revolutionaries become angry enough to revolt? And how do we reform when we rely on the elites to reform it if the system itself promotes elitism, greed and corruption? How do we reform a system that is inherently reactive rather than proactive, combative rather than collaborative? When the system is driven by secrecy and money more than understanding human need?

Join the discussion at @MYODemocracy to discuss the development of a new proactive, collaborative and distributed approach to governing groups of people, one where the people are in the centre driving the discussion toward real solutions to real problems, with elements from Direct Democracy, Crowd-sourcing, Sustainable Innovation, Open Data, Employee-Ownership, Distributed Governance and many more.

Reform over Revolution was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.